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An Introductory History of the Bugle From its Early Origins to the Present Day

The bugle may not date as far back as its sister, the trumpet, but from its common origins the bugle was to rise as the primary communication instrument in the infantry.

The bugle evolved from German hunting horns or buglehorns. The term “bugle” originated from the French word “bugler,” or “bugleret,” that was derived from the Latin “buculus,” meaning young bull. Since the earliest bugles were made of animal horns, the name “bugle” is intended to represent the appearance and origin of the instrument. Just as an animal’s horn is tapered at one end and flares at the other, so does the shape of the bugle. The usual understanding is that the bugle was used in the mid to late 18th century as a hunting horn. The shape of the instrument was a double coiled horn which, except for minor variations, was the same as the french horn.

Music for hunting was common and calls existed for various stages of the hunt. When a stag was killed the buglers would surround the dead animal and play calls to celebrate the killing.

Music for the hunt was performed on various types of bugles including straight belled horns and single and doubled coiled bugles. An example of a hunting bugle horn is the three coiled instrument called the “Prince Pless horn,” known for its distinctive green cloth or green leather strap wrapped around the coils. The horn was named for a Silesian nobleman who preferred the smooth sound of the horn. The instrument, which is still manufactured today, is in the key of B flat and is played with the bell up.

Furst Pless Horn
Music for the Hunting Horn

Bugle horns and Post-horns (which are long instruments) were used to signal the arrival of horse drawn coaches and postal couriers. Both types of instruments are found in many woodcuts and paintings. The long instrument (also known as a Coach Horn) has also been found in the United States as a signal device for the early days of the stage coach, and musical examples exist to show the various calls that were sounded on the horns. The emblem on postal boxes in The Netherlands still remains as a coiled bugle.

Coach Horn
Coach Horn Calls

One of the first bugles adopted for military use was a large semicircular bugle horn with a leather harness. This is the Hanoverian Halbmond (half-moon).


The instrument was made of copper and the straps which formed a “T” shape made it possible to carry the instrument. According to Anthony Baines, the Halbmondblaser appears in Hanoverian records of 1758 in association with a mixed corps of Light Troops organized by Captain von Scheiter. The horn was pitched in the key of D and had a crook to lower the pitch to C. The instrument was adopted for use by the English Light Dragoons in 1764, by the Grenadier Guards in 1772, and later by artillery and light infantry. The cavalry used trumpets with crooks which most likely were in the key of E flat.

Music for the signals is found in John Hyde’s A New and Compleat Preceptor for the Trumpet and Bugle Horn, published in 1799 with a second edition in 1800. The cover to the second edition has an engraving of a Halbmond (Bugle Horn) and two natural trumpets. Later editions of the manual would show the keyed bugle on the cover.

1800 Trumpet and Bugle Duty J Hyde

1800 Trumpet and Bugle Duty J. Hyde

This music contains three sections:
1) Music for trumpets for use in the Cavalry with appropriate calls for Stable, Boots and Saddles, To Horse, and Water Call.
2) Music for Bugle Horn for use in the Light Infantry with signals for skirmishers calls and duty calls for camp or garrison.
3) Duets for bugle horns by F. Fraser.

Groups of buglers were used to sound the calls and play marches written for two, three, and four parts. This is the first known use of bugle bands or corps, a forerunner of the drum and bugle corps. In 1804 James Gilbert, a musician with light dragoons, militia and cavalry regiments, wrote a manual of calls for riflemen and light infantry that included the infantry calls for the bugle and thirty-six marches and quicksteps. These thirty-six pieces are written for three parts but include no drum part.

Early American use of horn signaling paralleled that of the British Army. Shortly before the outbreak of armed rebellion in the North American colonies, the British Army had introduced trumpet signals for dragoons and the Halbmond or Hanoverian horn for light infantry. Raoul Camus in his thesis The Military Band in the United States Army Prior to 1834 suggests that American militia and some elements of the Continental Army incorporated these British horn signals into their field music.

After the Revolution, during the 1790s when the US Army briefly assumed its unique legion structure, Congress authorized one “trumpeter” in each of the four company-size units of the legion’s dragoon squadron. In the cavalry volume of an unofficial military treatise published in 1798, American compiler E. Hoyt listed and described trumpet calls, including “Boots and Saddles.” Hoyt’s 1811 Practical Instructions for Military Officers covers trumpets (“Each troop of cavalry has one”) and “Bugle-horns” (“now used by the light infantry and rifle corps…also used by the horse artillery and some regiments of cavalry”). Another compiler of military information, William Duane, in his 1809 compendium, proposed a standard system of signals for the army’s field instruments and adapted his music to the bugle.

1812 bugle

An early – possibly the earliest – officially promulgated reference to a bugle appears in War Department General Order 38 of 1825, which authorized two bugles to be furnished those companies designated light artillery, grenadiers, light infantry or rifles. Unfortunately there is no copy of that order on file at the United States Army Military History Institute, but it is cited in an index of War Dept. General Orders spanning 1809-1860.

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